Hard Damage

Winner of the 2018 Book Prize in Poetry

The winner of the 2018 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry is Aria Aber for her manuscript “Hard Damage,” chosen by guest-judges Glenna Luschei and Hilda Raz with Editor-in-Chief Kwame Dawes. She will receive a $3,000 prize and publication from the University of Nebraska Press. 

About the Book

Hard Damage works to relentlessly interrogate the self and its shortcomings. In lyric and documentary poems and essayistic fragments, Aria Aber explores the historical and personal implications of Afghan American relations. Drawing on material dating back to the 1950s, she considers the consequences of these relations—in particular the funding of the Afghan mujahedeen, which led to the Taliban and modern-day Islamic terrorism—for her family and the world at large.

Invested in and suspicious of the pain of family and the shame of selfhood, the speakers of these richly evocative and musical poems mourn the magnitude of citizenship as a state of place and a state of mind. While Hard Damage is framed by free-verse poetry, the middle sections comprise a lyric essay in fragments and a long documentary poem. Aber explores Rilke in the original German, the urban melancholia of city life, inherited trauma, and displacement on both linguistic and environmental levels, while employing surrealist and eerily domestic imagery.


“Aber is not afraid of erudition or the hard labor of crafting poems that peel open in layers; at times, reading her work reminded me of poets who have worked across similarly broad linguistic topographies: Carolyn Forché, Frank Bidart, Paul Celan, Sylvia Plath, Wallace Stevens, and others. But Aber’s work here is hardly derivative of those masters. She is her own poet, her own voice, and her debut is my favorite volume of poetry this year.”—Christian Kiefer, Paris Review

“[Hard Damage] does not consent to the simple narrative or the soundbite. It reminds readers that every displaced person, whether refugee, immigrant, or the child of one, carries with them a parcel of stories, stories that are often suppressed and mutated by the dominant culture, or lost to reductive media coverage. . . . Hard Damage allows the songs—and the lives that they contain—to unfurl.”—Marie Scarles, Rumpus

“Winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize, Aber’s ruminative lyrical debut tracks the movements of a twice-emigrated poet in poems that are personal and confessional.”—Publishers Weekly

“Aria Aber’s stunning debut is both deeply personal and deeply historical. Examining the effects of western colonialism on Afghanistan and the consequences of decisions dating back to the 1950s, Hard Damage questions and mourns the idea of citizenship. This collection focuses on stories of displacement, which Aber accomplishes by breaking boundaries, breaking forms, and even breaking language.”—Anthony Frame, Chicago Review of Books

“To properly review the new collection Hard Damage . . . you simply want to copy the entire text of the book into your article and just say: Read this. I can add nothing.“—Joe Hoover, America: The Jesuit Review

“Language is not static in Aber’s work—it’s malleable. It can be used to tell a story behind/within a story. . . . There is so much to be fascinated by in this book. So much to reward the reader.”—daniellejhanson.com

“Recently, there has been some debate about “Best of” literary lists, whether they are too narrow in their scope or simply biased toward works that have been bestowed with awards, failing to consider the abundance of books that deserves a wider audience. Regardless of where you land in this debate, it’s hard to imagine, as 2019 nears its end, that Hard Damage won’t be on every one of those lists. It’s an incredible achievement that doesn’t sugarcoat the subjects it tackles, and if there is a book that so thoroughly explores the human condition this year, it is undoubtedly Aber’s, one that will move you as much as it will stir serious discussion with others and, most importantly, with yourself.”—Esteban Rodriguez, Pank

“Revel in the rise of this searing, essential new voice. Aria Aber’s Hard Damage is an expansive debut that contends with the hard truth of how elusive belonging, and reckoning, is. . . . Every word, every phrase [of Hard Damage] is crafted to incise, with its electric currents of images that make up the lives of refugee mothers, fathers, and daughters, and the inherent homesickness of language, wars. This debut seduces, critiques, mourns, ruptures, replenishes—and not without humor and wit. By the end I found myself completely thrilled that poetry can have this many possibilities.”—Sally Wen Mao, author of Oculus

“With disarming ease, Aria Aber’s Hard Damage leaps from the personal to the political, from song to theory, from Rilke to ‘Afghan blow,’ from a German childhood back to an earlier Afghani family history, ending up in a richly vexed American life. These juxtapositions are electrifying, eloquent. . . . ‘What is it that we owe to each other?’ Aber asks, calling us into ‘history’s collateral light.’”—Catherine Barnett, author of Human Hours

“Aria Aber’s Hard Damage confronts the reader with both a masterful directness and lyrical clarity. Though the poet pays homage to tradition, these poems also realize a voice and experience—truth and sonority, spirit and grit—that are individual. Each turn in this narrative of dislocation dares a root-fed luminosity. Indeed, the speaker of Hard Damage transverses multiple way stations (Kabul, Berlin, Paris, New York City, and elsewhere), always carrying history and family through these migrations. This necessary collection possesses passion and wisdom.”—Yusef Komunyakaa, author of The Emperor of Water Clocks

“At turns scathing and tender, ironic and keening, Aber writes richly of warfare and Rilke, German and English alike. There is too much barbed beauty for my few sentences to contain, though Aber’s do—elegantly, dangerously. A tremendous debut we are lucky to behold.”—Solmaz Sharif, author of Look

“Aria Aber presses language until it yields up its secret meanings in this wide-ranging, cosmopolitan, remarkably Rilkean first book of poems. Hard Damage is haunted by questions of inheritance, of home and homelessness, of historical crisis, and it is suffused throughout with a dual feeling of Beauty and Terror. What a marvelous debut!”—Edward Hirsch, author of A Poet’s Glossary and How to Read a Poem

About the Author

Aria Aber is a Ron Wallace Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Her poems have appeared in the Kenyon Review, the New YorkerPoetry MagazineNarrative, and other publications.